Cars and motorcycles in action can make for dramatic results, and are popular subjects for many thrill-seeking photographers. But faced with a fast-moving subject that can be tricky to focus on and to keep within the frame, many photographers make the classic mistake of upping their ISO to get a very fast shutter speed to freeze the action and give a narrow aperture to make sure the subject is in focus.
What this does is turn a subject that could be doing 100mph into one that looks like it’s not actually moving. The subject and background are frozen, and background is in sharp focus to take attention away from the subject. And the image quality is low thanks to a high ISO setting.
Successful images of cars and bikes in action usually work because they give the viewer a real impression of speed. And there are a couple of tricks that canny photographers use to trick the viewer’s brain into understanding that the subject is actually in motion, despite the photo being a frozen image.
The first is to use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action, but ensure the subject is doing something that doesn’t “happen” in nature – hence giving the effect that there is some motion involved. For example, a Formula One car going round a corner on a race track, frozen in time at 1/8000th sec, can look like it’s parked. But a rally car frozen mid-air gives the impression that the car is in motion. After all, the brain is quick to work out that the car doesn’t hover motionless, so there must be some sort of movement involved. So a racing car hitting a kerb and having a wheel in the air shows that there is some action involved. Or a bike that’s kicking up some stones or gravel.
Motorcycles in action are actually easier to show they are in motion, because they lean over when going round corners. So even if they are frozen in the shot, the viewer quickly recognises that a motorcycle doesn’t stand still while leaning over or else it’d topple over. Hence it must be in motion. And it’s the same for any vehicle in mid air. The brain knows vehicles don’t float motionless, so they must be in action.
So the key is to choose vantage points where your subject might do something unusual – such as take off, kick up some gravel or lean over. Then use a fast shutter speed, and ideally wide aperture to throw the background out of focus to put the attention on the subject. Modern autofocus systems are excellent at tracking the subject, and a quick burst of shots using your motordrive means your chances of capturing the peak of the action are high.
The second way of making your subject appear in motion is to use some sort of blur. Although the brain can’t actually ever “see” blur like this, it’s a visual language that we all have come to understand that blur means some movement is involved.
The traditional way of creating blur in an action shot is to use a low shutter speed, then pan the camera with a moving subject – being careful to keep it in the same place in the frame. The resulting shot shows the subject sharp, but its wheels and the background blurred. This is a tricky technique that needs to be practiced over and again, as you need to keep the camera as smooth as possible to keep the subject as sharp as possible. There are no definite settings for shutter speed, as this depends on how fast the subject is going, how far away it is, the focal length of the lens and how much blur you want. But a good rule of thumb is to start at around 1/125th sec then go slower and slower until the subject is blurry itself. Of course, panning a drag racing car at 300mph and you’ll get blur at 1/1000th sec. It’s trial and error, and a digital camera is a huge advantage as you can see the results instantly and tweak your settings accordingly.
Using shutter priority is a good way to control the camera’s settings, or go to fully manual, set the shutter speed you want and an aperture to match to give the correct exposure. Although modern image stabilisation systems are heralded as giving amazing results, they often don’t work well for panning shots so try some with and some without.
When choosing a viewpoint, it pays to look for a background that will be blurred, such as a fence, trees or packed grandstand, and ideally quite large in the frame. If the background is plain and featureless – such as sky or a field – then the effect is lessened. And remember to think about composition. Giving your subject some space to drive into is usually better than slap-bang in the middle of the frame. And try a bit of camera tilt for a more striking photo.
Another way of creating blur is to make sure the camera is actually moving at the same speed as the subject. Then by using similar settings of a slow shutter speed, the subject is sharp but the background is blurred. Of course, you’ll not be able to do this during a motorsport event, but it’s how many shots of cars are taken.
The easiest way is to do what’s called a “tracking shot”. Usually this means the photographer is actually moving in a vehicle that is in front of, behind, or to the side of the subject and moving at the same speed. Of course, safety is paramount and you need a private road, drivers you trust and to be safely secured to the vehicle. Shooting through an open window, or out of the back of a car through an open tailgate, is fun and means you can carefully frame the shot. Again, experiment with different shutter speeds to get different types of blur. In this case, and to negate the effect of the photographer’s vehicle bouncing, then image stabilisation can actually work well.
If you don’t fancy hanging out of a window, then a second way of doing tracking shots like this is to actually mount your camera to the second vehicle and trigger it remotely, using a radio trigger or one of the more common wifi releases that many new cameras have.
The difficult bit is mounting the camera to a vehicle securely, and for this Manfrotto make a range of suction cups and magic arms that help to the job safely. On certain tripods you can replace the feet with adapters to take large rubber Manfrotto suction cups, too. It may be daunting at first, and the speed you drive the vehicle has to be low to avoid vibration shaking off the suckers. But this allows you to get the camera into positions you just couldn’t get otherwise – such as very close to the floor. And being close to the ground means there is extra blur to really increase the impression of speed.
Using a remote camera can also work well if you fasten it to the subject vehicle, as long as you realise you won’t be able to get the whole car in. You can mount your Manfrotto tripod or suction cup mechanism to the side of the car and shoot part of the wheel, for example. Or mount it behind the driver’s head on a soft top car for a unique view of the road ahead. And convertible cars are also ideal for mounting the camera in the footwell looking upwards, so a canopy of trees or buildings will blur to give a unique viewpoint and feeling of the car rushing along.
For the really brave and those who are competent in Photoshop, one of the most common ways professionals shoot cars in motion is to use a long boom arm which is mounted to the subject car at one end, and has a camera mounted to the other. Specially made custom rigs are available, or DIY photographers use a selection of long tubes that are fastened to the car using some Manfrotto Super Clamps and large suckers. The camera is usually suspended from a Manfrotto Magic arm, ideally as far away from the car as possible. Using a very long shutter speed of up to eight seconds – for which an ND filter is often used – the car is usually rolled forward rather than being driven to avoid vibration. The long exposure gives loads of background blur and movement in the wheels, but as the camera has moved at the same speed as the car itself, the subject is sharp. However, the rig itself appears in the photo, so you need some expert Photoshop skills to clone it out.
A final way of creating creative blur is to use your flashgun – bearing in mind safety as a flash isn’t suitable for all subjects. This slow-sync technique is similar to panning, where you use a slow shutter speed to make the background blurry to give the real impression of movement. But instead of relying on your panning technique to keep the subject sharp, you use a burst of light from a flash to freeze the subject. Often there will be “ghost” image around the outside of the subject, showing where the ambient light has registered. But the affect usually gives a very bright, colourful and dramatic image that’s suitable for certain subjects. And it also works well when you can get close to the subject and use a wide angle lens for dramatic effect as opposed to traditional panning where a longer focal length lens makes the technique easier. If you have more than one flash and know how to do off-camera flash, then you can combine this with the slow-sync technique for even more amazing results.
As in all these cases, you have to think about safety first – both for yourself and camera but also the subject and any spectators. If you’re at a track, obey any safety rules and if you are doing your own shoot then ensure you’re prepared and have briefed everyone involved in what you are planning to do. No photo- no matter how dramatic – is worth risking people’s safety for.